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Archive for Sunday, October 2, 2005

American ‘space tourist’ in orbit

October 2, 2005

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— U.S. millionaire scientist Gregory Olsen and an American-Russian crew hurtled toward the international space station Saturday on a Soyuz craft in a journey his family said was motivated by a devotion to science.

Relatives and friends of Olsen, astronaut William McArthur and cosmonaut Valery Tokarev gasped as the Russian craft lifted off in a burst of flame from the Baikonur cosmodrome and soared into the bright autumn sky over the steppes of Kazakhstan.

As the announcement came that the spacecraft had entered its initial designated orbit nine minutes after the launch, the crowd burst into applause.

The crew reported that all was well aboard the Soyuz TMA-7 capsule, which will rendezvous Monday with the station floating about 250 miles above the Earth.

However, Russian space officials injected a sour note, warning that they could not guarantee McArthur's return next spring at the end of his and Tokarev's six-month mission unless NASA pays for the flight.

Since the 2003 Columbia disaster grounded the U.S. shuttle fleet, the United States has depended on Russian Soyuz and Progress craft to ferry its astronauts and supplies to the orbiting space station. Discovery visited the station in July, but problems with the foam insulation on its fuel tank cast doubt on when the shuttle will fly again.

U.S. law currently bars NASA from making such payments to Russia.

The Soyuz make twice-yearly missions to the station to deliver new crews and bring back astronauts.

McArthur and Tokarev are replacing Russian Sergei Krikalev and American John Phillips, who will return to Earth on Oct. 11, along with Olsen, a 60-year-old founder of an infrared-camera maker based in Princeton, N.J. He reportedly paid $20 million for a seat on the Expedition 12 flight.

Olsen, who holds advanced degrees in physics and materials science, has defended his presence as a necessary step in the evolution of space travel.

The cash-strapped Russian agency has turned to space tourism to generate money. Olsen is the third non-astronaut to visit the orbiting station: California businessman Dennis Tito paid about $20 million for a weeklong trip to the space station in 2001, and South African Mark Shuttleworth followed a year later.

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